In the last two decades, Japan has clearly made some huge improvements in their football movement. Many players were able to take the leap to Europe or South America; the Japan national team featured in six consecutive World Cups after their debut campaign in 1998; some Japanese players left a mark all over the world, either because of their talent or thanks to their character (or both!).
Some of their stories started in small clubs, even by not playing in the top tier. Most of the Japanese players who have moved to Europe are in the offensive department: it’s not a mystery that Japan is able to produce a lot of interesting profiles in roles like offensive midfielders, wingers and full-backs. Goalkeepers and strikers are not abundant, but Japan is pretty much covered in those positions.
Especially the “10” role – whether you mean it like a technical winger or a crafty no. 10, maybe behind the main striker – saw a ton of promises rising through the Japanese football pyramid. And it doesn’t matter if you’re not playing in J1 League. Remember Shinji Kagawa? He featured in just 11 games in the first tier before moving to Borussia Dortmund and changing the course of his career, forever.
That’s why we’re here: this new column is called “Po10tial” because this year’s J2 League has offered five solid profiles, with several traits in common. They’re young (every single player could be an option for Tokyo 2021), they’re mostly midfielders (sorry, no Kazuma Yamaguchi here, although he’s a really interesting player) and they all wear the magical number 10, bringing fantasy and delight to their fans.
The third protagonist of our column is both the youngest prospect and probably the one who showed the best signs throughout this season. We already saw sparks last year, but his club was in turmoil, having seen two different managers in 2019. His explosion in 2020 has been clear and we wonder if he might really stay in the second division, because his potential could be way above that line.
That someone is Shion Homma, who’s thriving at Albirex Niigata.
Growth and downfall
As we said, he’s one of the youngest players among the ones making the difference in this season. He just turned 20 in August and, yet, we have seen a lot of games solved by his technique and ability of being a decisive asset for the squad when it was needed. Born in the city of Murakami – located in the extreme Northern side of the Niigata Prefecture –, Homma joined the club when he was just 13 years-old.
While the club was enjoying a nice time, he signed for the U-13 side and got immediately attention from the JFA, being added to the young national squads. Even at the club, they realized there was something good to nurture: Homma played his first pro-game in May 2017, when he featured for a J. League Cup match against Vissel Kobe. It was his only match that year, but he was also the youngest player ever featuring for Albirex (16 years and nine months).
Despite the talent was there, the club nevertheless took a long time to field him. He played just one game in 2017 and five in 2018, when Niigata were already down in J2. Four of those five matches came in the J. League Cup, while the only league game came just after his official promotion to the top-team. Strangely, it coincided with his first pro-goal… a winning-goal, scored against Zweigen Kanazawa in Matchday 33.
What’s to highlight here, though, is how Homma’s and his club’s fortunes have gone in completely separate directions. While the current no. 10 is a gold prospect and has time on his side, Albirex weren’t able to give a steady direction to the rebuilding process. They risked relegation several times before dropping to J2, but they also changed so many managers your head will spin.
If we consider just the time Homma got pro, Niigata had seven different stints on the bench, with Koichiro Katafuchi taking the job twice (first as a caretaker, then on a stable way in 2018). And if things look way better now under former NYCFC manager, Albert Puig, surely you wonder how a talent was able to rise despite all this confusion within a club which suffered a downfall in the last years.
We have always known Niigata as a place where average attendances were tremendous in the 2000s; never won a trophy, but they endured a long streak of seasons in J1 and launched a tremendous number of players in the league. Homma will surely be remembered as one of them, but it’s tough to develop when the technical direction isn’t stable as a young talent would need.
The key-piece for a J1 comeback
Despite the confusion, Homma started featuring more from 2019, after a steep fall in 2018 (Albirex ended sixteenth in the first season in J2 after a 15 years-break). Katafuchi was nonetheless retained as head coach and the club made a couple of solid purchases on the transfer market, signing Leonardo from Gainare Tottori and bringing in other Brazilians (like Silvinho and Francis: the former stayed in Niigata also for 2020).
While the “Carioca colony” helped Niigata becoming one of the most enjoyable sides in J2 (despite changing their manager mid-season), Homma gained some minutes as time went by. He and Arata Watanabe – another home-made prospect by Niigata – were making waves and helping Leonardo to get the top-scorer title; especially when Yasunaga took the coaching spot, Homma started appearing more and more.
Despite starting just eight times, featuring for the whole match just in the last game of the season (!) and playing 867 minutes (17th in the 2019 roster), Homma left a mark and looked really promising. And newly-hired manager Puig got it, placing Homma in the starting eleven, this time with no doubts, given that some players – like Leonardo, Francis and Ryoma Watanabe – left the club last Winter.
It worked. After ending tenth in the table in 2019, Albirex have steadily rose through the ranks. They were never really in the contention for direct promotion, but if playoffs were in place for 2020 season, they would have been a sure participant. In this scenario, Homma posed as the main offensive link-up: on the left flank, he found his sweet spot and forced even Japan national team head coach, Hajime Moriyasu, to come and see him play.
He scored seven goals and assisted five in 31 matches, going up both in minutes played (he’s fourth-most used member of the squad) and importance in the team. Puig has heavily relied on the no. 10, while also developing another talent on the right (Motohiko Nakajima is another win for Niigata, albeit on loan): both of them are interesting, but Homma is younger and seems to have way more potential than his already reliable team-mate.
Tactics are helping as well, given the 4-2-3-1 implemented by the Spanish manager has worked in giving Niigata a new and solid identity. You wonder if they might need to strengthen their defense or finding a new no. 9 – Fábio and Pedro Manzi have been recently fired –, but Homma has been amazing, creating many chances and bringing some individual plays to the table for Albirex.
His dribbling skills, in particular, remind of the wing-spreading by a colibri: Homma looks almost frantic with the ball within his feet, with a tempo and a pace that’s probably unique in Japanese football. His ability of cutting through the opponents to find an assist or close the action himself is remarkable. In this season, he even found some goals with great rockets from outside the penalty box, crafting other skills from his toolset.
Like Benjamin Button reminded in the homonym picture movie, hummingbirds have an astonishing heartbeat, like they were supposed to represent entropy and infinity in the world. At the same time, the pace of Homma’s football is so quick and frantic, you almost struggle in following him. But you can expect big rewards at the end of his runs, especially in an open field through counterattacks.
A classical music that could go along with his YouTube comp
Being patient for the future
It seems that Albirex are out of the run for promotion this season, since only the top two teams will join J1 next year. Despite this, they have something to build on from this crazy year IF they’ll be able to keep the team around for 2021. While it won’t be easy to find two-three crucial team members to pursue the promotion, Niigata proved they can do it (especially in the center-forward position, where Fábio promised to be a decent add).
And if Niigata are rising back to the top of J2, they owe it to Homma. He may be young, but he seems the center of this project and the member who is the least sellable right now: if they want to come back to J1, Homma has to stay, even if we can imagine how many J1 clubs and maybe someone in Europe are watching him closely. Last but not least, for Homma as well it’s the right choice: he settled, he’s from the Prefecture, he can develop even more through this project.
We spotted one nice question on the Albirex website about him. When they asked who’s his role model as a player, Homma answered “Messi”. And this inspiration is actually fit for the no. 10’s way of living on the pitch: even those plays, where he cuts on the inside and searches for a shot on the further angle, have the Messi-esque trademark all over them (although made on the opposite side of the pitch, since the Argentinian is left-footed).
Furthermore, Albert Puig has some connections with Barcelona, because he was part of the club before going to New York and joining the City Football Group-bandwagon in the MLS. Puig was the coordinator and director of “La Masia”, the famous academy of the club, from nine years. An important role, which has shaped his way of seeing football as a manager: this will also help the no. 10 in developing even in 2021.
Homma said how the goal for this season was scoring 10 goals on the pitch, but off there’s another objective to achieve: learning some English. Maybe Homma understood he could really have a shot abroad, but without the language it’s going to be hard. He’s young and he’s certainly going to make some waves: only time will tell if he will even reach a JNT-level in the future.